Saturday, July 2, 2016

Little mothers and Proto-proletarians: Growing up in Mining

By Lesley Hulonce

Elizabeth was using the last of the daylight to finish mending her brother’s trousers. The job often kept her until the early hours of the morning because of the long hours the miners worked. She hated the thick moleskin that prevented him being injured in the mine as it was almost impossible to get her needle through, and her fingers were hurting. The needle and thread had to be waxed for nearly every stitch before she could get it into the moleskin. He felt differently, these were men's trousers, miners’ trousers which showed that he was now a man, a wage earner and had at last joined the masculine ranks at the pit. Alan Burge identifies boys’ first pair of moleskin trousers as a ‘totem of manhood’. Getting their first pair represented their entry into the ethos of adult ‘manhood’ within the pit.

    (Welsh miners' children)

The South Wales coalfield was one of the few locations in Britain which adhered to a separate spheres agenda. Deirdre Beddoe argued in 1984 that Welsh women were written out of Welsh history and, ‘If a creature from outer space landed in Wales and worked through Welsh history, she would be perplexed as to how the Welsh procreated. They were all men!’ Unlike most of the country where working-class women went out to work as a matter of course, in the coalfield boys were trained to be miners and girls to be mothers and housewives. They were ‘little mothers’ as soon as they could look after their siblings, they could be taken out of school in times of crisis and were primed to marry a miner, probably from the same village and restart the cycle with their own (numerous) children. While American feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott felt able to claim with confidence that the ‘call for a history of women’ had been comprehensively answered by 1983, within the historiography of Wales, a complete work dedicated to Welsh women’s history was not published until 1991.

The study of childhood in Wales is an under-investigated area of scholarship. The gender roles and expectations of adult life were grafted onto children via the stratification of play, household chores and education. Building on Alun Burge’s study of miners’ learning in the first half of the twentieth century, a gendered analysis of both boys’ and girls’ positioning within coalfield society enhances our understanding of the gender roles ingrained during their formative years. Boys were widely seen as proto-proletarian heroes, union stalwarts and hungry for learning. But not by their mothers who imagined a different future for their children, one which did not include working a mile underground or struggling on after 13 stillborn births. As Dot Jones argues ‘the unremitting toil of childbirth’ killed and debilitated untold numbers of women in the South Wales Coalfield. Burge argues that boys were socialised and trained into the colliery ‘around the fireplace’.  Dai Dan Evans recalled that ‘all the young lads…in the village were steeped in mining, the only conversation you could get in the community was about mining…Therefore we were what you might term, trained for the pit, and nothing else’. Girls, it appears were trained for domesticity and very little else.

 (pithead bathing)

Although elementary education of working-class girls was intended to produce good wives and domestic servants, there is insufficient exploration of the offensive that exacerbated this widely held construction of femininity. Reports such as the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical 
Deterioration in 1906 set the tone for girls’ education as it thought that the ‘annual sacrifice of infants’ was not due to poverty but to the ignorance of mothers about hygiene and nutrition and it recommended the teaching of cookery, childcare and cleanliness in schools. ‘Schools for Mothers’ were also established which leant heavily on lectures on personal hygiene and the necessity to eliminate dirt from the home. Girls were trained to refute this charge of slovenliness in the home by becoming respectable and ‘tidy’ women.   

Amongst girls who attended and completed a grammar school education, entry into the teaching profession was regarded as an appropriate progression. Sian Rhiannon Williams highlights the limited occupational options of educated working-class women and men in an article that shows that teaching may have not been the girls’ first choice, but as teaching was held in high regard and considered an appropriate feminine profession, many young women were encouraged down this avenue by their parents. Williams has shown that this ‘feminisation’ of teaching from the late nineteenth century did not necessarily lead to a fall in the social standing of teachers.

 (waiting for news)

However, a more complex gendered exploration of why the profession was considered so suitable for women, could deepen our understanding of a coalfield society in which teaching was perceived as the primary ‘escape’ from the pit or domesticity.

Elizabeth Andrews didn't grow up to darn her own sons’ moleskin trousers as she and her husband did not have children themselves. She became the Labour Party’s Woman Organiser for Wales for 29 years and following her retirement in 1948 she equated her work to that of a missionary ‘preaching this new Gospel of Social Justice and a new way of life’. Her long career of political activism had also included campaigning for women’s suffrage and the establishment of several branches of the Women’s Co-operative Guild in the Rhondda. She was a leading figure in the campaigns for pithead baths and better housing for miners; pit head baths were considered vital if women were to be able to stop carrying heavy coppers of hot water to bathe their coal-stained husbands at home. The evidence she gave before the Sankey Coalmining Commission in 1919 raised awareness of a coalfield society in which the health and life expectancy of miners’ wives and daughters was as damaged and diminished by the demands of mining as the miners themselves.

  (Elizabeth Andrews)

These were ‘tidy women’ women whose career was homemaking and mothering; ‘an army of women trained to wash and scrub and polish as men trooped in and out’. Mrs Hughes reminisces about cleaning:

‘I used to wash the path – and our toilet was down the bottom of the garden – and I used to ‘wash the path – we had flagstones – used to wash the path from the back door right down to the toilet…And then the front, flagstones was in front then, and I used to wash the pavement from the front door, right past the window, right down to the drain. The pavement, I used to wash all that. Beautiful, lovely. 

‘Coal House’ was a reality TV series, in which three 2007 families lived and worked in the south Wales coalfield of 1927. while the programme tried to follow the way life was in 1927, it was of course impossible to recreate the fear, worry and hardship that Welsh children and their families experienced on a daily basis. I was drawn to the way the women failed to keep the range up to a temperature for cooking and water for baths. Women in 1927 would never have let the range temperature drop – if they had done, their miner husbands would have come home dirty and hungry and been unable to bathe or eat; it was unthinkable.

(coal house)

A 1916 Local Government Report showed that some counties in Wales had more than double the average maternal death rate of England and Wales. Stillbirths in Wales were also over a 1/3 higher than England, and in Glamorgan and Monmouth maternal mortality had increased from 14.2% in 1929 to 42% in 1933. A damning report on Maternal Mortality in Wales in 1937 showed that maternal mortality had risen steadily and was over a 1/3 higher than England. Similarly In ‘Counting the Cost of Coal’, Dot Jones shows that in 25-44 age groups in Pontypridd, the female mortality rate was significantly higher than men.

Little girls were growing up to die in childbirth, and little boys were sent into mines where safety standards were low priorities. Mining companies in South Wales of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took the children for the pits and lost them early to the killing fields of coal.
Select references:

For an insight into the pride taken by these ‘tidy women’ listen to
Deirdre Beddoe, ‘Towards a Welsh Women’s History’ in Llafur, 3:2 (1981).

Alun Burge, ‘Swimming against the tide: gender, learning and advancement in South Wales, 1900-1939’, Llafur, 8, 3 (2002), 13-31

Joan Wallach Scott, ‘Women in History: The Modern Period’, Past and Present, 101 (1983), 141; 

Angela V. John, ed., Our Mother’s Land, Chapters in Welsh Women’s History, 1830-1939 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991).

Rosemary Crook, ‘Tidy women: women in the Rhondda between the wars’, Oral History Journal, 10 (1982), 40-6.

Neil Evans and Dot Jones, ‘“A blessing for the miner’s wife”: the campaign for pithead baths in the south Wales coalfield, 1908-1950’, Llafur, 6:3 (1994), 5-28.

Elizabeth Andrews (ed., Ursula Masson), A Woman’s Work is Never Done and Political Articles (Dinas Powys, Honno, 2006 edition).

Diana Gittins, Fair Sex: Family Size and Structure, 1900-39 (London, Hutchinson, 1982).

Francis and Dai Smith, The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century (London, L&W, 1980; UWP, 1998).

Carol White and Sian Rhiannon Williams (eds), Struggle or Starve: Women’s Lives in the South Wales Valleys Between the Two World Wars (Dinas Powys, Honno, 1998).

Graham Goode and Sara Delamont, ‘Opportunity denied: the voices of the lost grammar school girls of the inter-war years’, in Sandra Betts (ed.), Our Daughters’ Land: Past and Present (UWP, 1996), 103-24.

Dr Lesley Hulonce is a historian and lecturer in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Swansea University. She researches children, women, disabilities and prostitution and can be contacted at
She tweets at @LesleyHulonce and @histhealthcult and blogs at Workhouse Tales
Her first monograph is available to preorder at Amazon for £2 (a pound of which goes to the Careleavers trust) Pre-order

Friday, July 1, 2016

Who Were the Celts?

By Annie Whitehead

I had cause, a few years ago, to try to find out about the slightly mythical Celts. Who were they, where did they really come from, what do we actually know about them and how they lived? In this, the first of a series, I will attempt to answer the first question - Who were they?

The Celts in Europe
The origin of these peoples seems to lie partially in the inhabitants of north-Alpine Europe. The people here are known to archaeologists as the 'Urnfield People' because of their burial rites. They cremated their dead, and buried the ashes in cemeteries known as 'Urnfields'. Their culture is spread from about 1300-700 BC and there is evidence to suggest that they spoke a recognisably Celtic language.

Between 700 and 600 BC, there seems to have been a partial change in burial rite in central Europe, connected with the iron-using 'Halstatt' culture. The graves which gave their name to this phase were found at Halstatt in the Salzkammergut in Austria. (Painting of grave goods shown above - image Public Domain) Much of the wealth of these people came from salt mines and saline springs; salt was a much valued commodity, and could be traded for rich articles associated with burials. The burial rite changed in that the bodies were laid out un-burnt on four-wheeled chariots, and covered by an earthen mound.

Model of a Halstatt Grave Barrow - image under Commons Licence- author Wolfgang Sauber

In about 500 BC, further changes apparently took pace. The centre of Celtic power moved to the Middle Rhine. At burials, the bodies were now laid out in the light, two-wheeled chariots which were to become typical Celtic vehicles of war. This second, and most typically Celtic phase, is known as 'La Tène'. The name was taken from the discovery of a (presumably ritual) deposit of metalwork in the lake at  La Tène (The Shallows) on  Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The La Tène culture brought with it a glorious new art style.

Bronze fitting - image reproduced under Commons Licence - author BastienM

From about 450 BC, movement and expansion of these barbarian people can be traced. It seems that bands of these people made their way down into the Italic peninsula, over-running Etruria, [1] settling there and further south, and, in 390 BC, pushing into Rome. Others went further east, into Asia Minor (Turkey), and in 279 BC they made an unsuccessful attack on Delphi.

The Classics tell us that the Celts were organised into tribes. The Greeks and Romans make comments on their social organisation, and some of their habits and customs, and much of this information can be regarded as genuine.

After the fatal attack on Delphi, it would seem that the Celtic retreat commenced, although a few Celts remained in the east for many centuries.

The Celts in Britain
There is archaeological evidence to suggest that there were Celts of Halstatt ancestry in north-eastern Scotland as early as 600 BC and settlements of people of Halstatt origin from France and the Low Countries would appear to have taken place about 500-450 BC. The initial settlement of these people occurred on the east coast of Yorkshire, and in the south and east. These Halstatt derived cultures are grouped by archaeologists under Britain Iron Age A. [2] *

Bronze Halstatt tool, possibly a razor - image Public Domain

Although elements of the La Tène culture were present from the first, the next movement into Britain seems to have taken place about 250 BC. These settlers came across to the east and south coasts, and spread to the south and west. It was these people who introduced the two-wheeled war chariots and, of course, the La Tène art style. It is not known however whether it was these people or their Halstatt predecessors who introduced the Druidic priesthood to preside over religious rites. These, and other bearers of  La Tène derived cultures, are contained within the British Iron Age B.

The third phase of Celtic settlements is contained within British Iron Age C. It consists of the influx of Belgic peoples who settled in southern Britain. This movement can be dated to around 100 BC. These people may have introduced the art of enamelling, and brought over the gods and cult symbols from Gaul. It would appear that it was the hostility of this group of people towards the Romans, that was the main reason for Caesar's invasion in 55 BC. Between this date and Claudius' conquest in AD 43, further Belgic settlements took place.

The famous Snettisham (Norfolk) Great Torc, 1st C BC - Under Commons Licence- author Ealdgyth

The south soon settled down to Roman rule, although the north put up opposition, and in the years between the two Roman invasions there was a great deal of movement to the north by those anxious to escape the Roman domination.

Scottish versions of the Iron Age A cultures of England were present, and trade relations show some connection between southern Scotland and the Iron Age C (Belgic) area of southern England. After the establishment of Roman rule, restless tribes beyond Hadrian's Wall put up resistance, especially the Maeatae, and the Caledonii, who were the fore-runners of the historical Picts. [3] (Information on Celtic settlement in Scotland was and remains, for the time being, somewhat confused.)

Certain Celtic Peoples
Information about which Celtic tribes settled where is confused, because for much of the Celtic era, the results of archaeology and history cannot be made to coincide. More is known about certain tribes than others. The La Tène culture was certainly important and, as we have seen, was known for its art. Yet these people were masters of many other techniques. Not only could they inlay metals, but long before the invention of the necessary rolling equipment, they were also capable of producing the finest iron. They even seem to have mastered the art of casting soft iron, a technique once thought to have been perfected only in the nineteenth-century. They could boil ornamental glass, coloured and white, and they knew how to enamel. They could cover copper objects with tin, and may have been the first people in the world to silver them with mercury. They devoted much care to the manufacture of weapons. the chain-mail of Celtic princes could have stood comparison with those of the high middle ages, if stone representations have been correctly interpreted.

Ornamental gold mounts on bowl - Commons Licence - author Rosemania

The Celts of Gaul were apparently most hospitable people, never locking their doors, and always welcoming passers-by. The Gauls were known to  Caesar as 'Galli' and to the Greeks as 'Galatae'.

On the other hand, the Cisalpine (on this side, i.e. the Roman side of the Alps) and Transalpine Gauls (across the Alps, i.e. the other side) used to cut off the heads of defeated enemies and hang them up, like trophies, outside their houses. [4] The Gauls were described by Diodorus [5] thus:

"They are very tall in stature. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so; they bleach it, washing it in lime and combing it back from the foreheads. Some of them are clean-shaven, but others, especially those of high rank, shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth."

According also to Diodorus, the Transalpine Gauls were men of few words who spoke in riddles, leaving most of their meaning hidden, and he thought them intelligent and capable of learning. Yet Strabo [6] found these same Transalpines simple-minded and limited. Much of what we can learn about the Celts is, of course, subject to such opinion.

Overview map of the Hallstatt (yellow) and La Tène (green) cultures. After Atlas of the Celtic World, by John Haywood; London Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2001, pp. 30-37.
By Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Next time: How the Celts Lived.

[1] Etruria - a former region of Italy between the Tiber, the Apennines, and the River Magra. The Etruscans were a superior intellectual Aryan race originating from Asia Minor. Although they settled in Italy, they were different from and far more advanced than their Italian neighbours. They spoke a strange language, all traces of which have unfortunately been lost.
[2] More on these groupings can be found in Pagan Celtic Britain - Anne Ross p39
[3] Generally regarded to be Celts - they could merely have been Picti - the painted people (more of which in the next part of this series) or they could have been Pictones, a conquering aristocracy from Pictavia, or Poitou. Anne Ross believes they originated form the Caledonii Op cit p41
[4] Diodorus says that they preserved the heads in wooden boxes.
[5] Diodorus (Sicilus) of Sicily was a Greek historian. His 40 books were a universal history from mythical beginnings to the time of Caesar. He used varied literary sources with little judgement of his own, and often without regard to exact chronology. For certain periods, though, he provides the best evidence available.
[6] Strabo was a Greek geographer. He lived from about 58 BC-25 AD. He spent his life in travel and study. His Geographica in 17 books included in Book 4 a study of Gaul, Britain and Ireland, although the countries he travelled through were not described with equal accuracy and fullness. (Below - Strabo's map of Europe - Public Domain)

Further reading:
The Celts - Gerhard Herm
Celtic Britain - Lloyd Laing
The World of the Celts - G Dottin
*The classification of the Iron Age is, according to archaeologist and author Louise Turner, in a state of 'flux' at the moment. For more information visit Here

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016 and has been awarded an indieBRAG medallion. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now.
Annie's Author Page
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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Sherry: An Ancient Beverage Shared with Angels

by Lauren Gilbert

Stilleben mit Trauben auf einer Porzellanschale, zwei Pfirsichen und gefülltem Sherryglas

I have always been very interested in the late Georgian/Regency periods of English history. My reading showed that sherry was a popular beverage of the time, and one of the few stronger beverages that it was socially acceptable for a lady to enjoy. A recent tasting event that I had the privilege to attend led me to read up on the history of sherry, and what a history it has!  A rich and complex subject, I would like to give a general overview.

The roots of sherry go back three thousand years in Spain, where it appears that the Phoenicians brought vines and the knowledge of wine making. The city of Jerez, a key area for the production of sherry, was established by the Phoenicians as Xera. Other cultures contributed to the development of this wine and it was imported to Rome. When the Moors occupied Spain in the 8th century, despite the Muslim prohibition against the consumption of alcohol, they continued the cultivation of grapes for the production of wine for medicinal purposes and for raisins. The area was reclaimed in 1264 by King Alfonso X of Castile, and the wine industry continued under a reward system that affected who could grow what and where. Guild regulations controlled how long wine could be held (aged). From Spain, the wine traveled widely. Sherry was on ship with Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan on their voyages of discovery. Thanks to pirate raids, which led to the sale of sherry elsewhere, it became popular in other areas, especially England. It was already being traded in England during the 12th century.

Then known as sack or Sherish (another reference to Jerez), this wine was known in the Tudor court. Catherine of Aragon mentioned her husband the King keeping the best wines of the Canaries and Sherish for himself. It was a favourite of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, who drank multiple bottles per day. When Sir Francis Drake seized thousands of barrels of sherry in 1587, this wine became extremely fashionable at court, which led to increased demand. Guild restrictions at this time prohibited aging of wines, which meant that the sherry of this time was essentially a very young white wine that required the addition of alcohol for preservation, resulting in what is called a fortified wine. This wine traveled well, and was commonly taken on long voyages. Of course, wars during this period also caused complications.

Delays caused some wine to sit, which resulted in oxidation, intensifying flavours and adding other nuances. In turn, newer sherries were mixed with older, more oxidized wines which also changed the character. Taste for the sweeter, stronger wines led to the addition of brandy to the mix. An attack on the area of Cadiz (near Jerez) having failed, numerous business men from England, Ireland and other places, set up businesses in Spain in the 17th – 19th centuries, to be sure of obtaining the desired quantities of wines. Names such as Sandeman, Harvey, Osborne and others were established at that time. The Peninsular Wars (part of the Napoleonic Wars) in the early 19th century, caused havoc as France attacked and even occupied the area around Jerez. Vines were destroyed and wines were stolen. However, the area rebounded again. Because of the conflict and difficulties, sales slowed and wine sat in casks, which led to an unintended oxidation and a concentration of flavour.

It is time to stop for a moment to consider the process of making sherry and the final product. True sherry was, and is, made only in Andalusia, in southwestern Spain. The process has literally evolved over centuries, and has adapted as rules and tastes change. A white wine is produced from two main varieties of grapes: the Palomino and Pedro Ximenez (a sweet grape). After fermentation, alcohol (originally a distilled grape liquor, subsequently a neutral brandy) is added, which increases the alcoholic content. Traditionally, sherry was quite dry, but it could be sweetened (and frequently was) with other additives ranging from sweet grape juice to sugar. (Adding sugar to sweeten wine goes back to the Romans). As time and changes in the guild rules and procedures occurred, more variations in flavour came forth. New wines were, and are still, blended with older ones in a process called Solera.  The different types of sherry produced are Manzanilla and Fino (both dry), Amontillado and Oloroso (dry to medium-dry), and cream (sweet).

A key issue that gives sherry its character is the fact that air is deliberately let into the barrels to cause oxidation. According to WINDOWS ON THE WORLD COMPLETE WINE COURSE by Kevin Zraly, letting air in not only causes the required oxidation, it results in a loss of about 3% per day to evaporation, which he called “The Angel’s share”. (p. 158). (Although tastes were leaning toward the sweeter wines, like port and madeira, I suspect the sherry of the late Georgian/Regency era may have been a somewhat drier style, but there is no way to be sure.)  In the 19th century, the guild was abolished which allowed for storage and aging of wines, which led to other modifications that changed the wine over time to the wide range of types we can now enjoy. Sherry was very popular during the Victorian era, and continued to be a favoured beverage into the 20th century. However, many people think of sherry in terms of the very sweet cream sherry, not knowing that there is a wide range of choice. Because of the sweetness of cream sherry, many consider sherry as specifically a dessert wine.  However, certain varieties (especially the dry) are delicious with savory food.

Sherry glasses-photo by the author

Serving sherry is interesting as well. I did not find a reference to a specific “sherry glass” prior to the Victorian era. It is worth noting that wine glasses were smaller in earlier times. I have some antique wine glasses that hold only three to four ounces, which is considerably smaller than modern wine glasses. Sherry glasses seem to have become popular during the mid-Victorian era. I have three different types of glasses (see photo). Despite their different shapes, each only holds about two ounces. It seems possible that the slightly smaller shape became popular for sherry due to its being a fortified, and somewhat stronger, wine. However, there is no requirement for using a special sherry glass-sherry can be enjoyed in a regular wine glass. (Although I do believe that the special glass adds to the experience!)  Although the sherry we enjoy today may not be exactly the same as that consumed in earlier times, it can provide a sort of shared experience, a touch of elegance and an idea of something in which someone of a previous era indulged.

Sources include:

Zraly, Kevin. WINDOWS ON THE WORLD COMPLETE WINE COURSE. New York: Sterling Publishing Co. 2002.

Spanish Fiestas on line. “Sherry Wine.” HERE

Wall Street Journal on-line. “Sherry’s Long, Rich and Uncertain Past by Lettie Teague. 2/19/2011. HERE “History of Sherry.” HERE

The Passionate Foodie. “History of Sherry: 18th to 19th Century (Part IV).”  HERE 
Image: Wikimedia Commons- by Otto Scholderer HERE 

Photo of sherry glasses taken by the author.

Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, was released in 2011, while her second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is in process. Lauren is a long-time member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. She does enjoy the occasional glass of sherry (medium dry). Visit her website here for more information.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Medieval Monks' Meals

By E.M. Powell

The medievals were well acquainted with the Seven Deadly Sins, one of which was/is gluttony—the vice of excessive eating and drinking.

It is therefore no surprise that it was one of the vices that Saint Benedict, a key figure in starting the monastic movement in the early Christian Church, wanted to avoid. Benedict was a Roman nobleman who in around 500 AD, chose to leave Rome and worship Christ in an isolated setting. His popularity grew and he founded his own monastery, writing his famous Benedictine Rule. The Rule is a set of regulations for those in the monastic life and shaped almost every aspect of that life in the medieval period.

Saint Benedict

Saint Benedict did not approve of personal possessions and he prescribed how many hours a monk should sleep. And the Rule also laid down what monks should eat and the quantities of food that should be eaten. Benedict forbade the eating of meat from four legged animals. He was a fan of black bread, plain water, greens and vegetables.

He believed that monks should eat once a day in winter and have a second lighter meal in summer, in the evenings when days were longer. His plan was that monks should have a choice of two cooked meals, vegetable or cereal based and which could include a modest amount of fish or some egg. Meat was only for those who were ill. On feast days, monks could be allowed a supplementary treat known as a 'pittance'. A pittance might be better quality bread or wine instead of beer.

The rationale behind Benedict's Rule was to support one of the three monastic vows: chastity. There was a belief that a rich diets inflamed the senses, incited greed and lust. A full monk was a sleepy monk, and so would not be in a fit state to pray for hours at a time. Benedict did acknowledge that monks needed to have extra treats every now and then. Brothers were allowed to eat more if they were invited to the Abbot's table.

But as with all good intentions, the Rule was adapted over the centuries. A special room called the misericord was built for infirm monks. This was separate to the main refectory (dining room), so meat could be eaten here. Yet monks in full health would retire there to consume meat. By 1336, Pope Benedict XII (yes, another Benedict) permitted meat on four days outside of fast days. And what meat: records show the consumption of beef, mutton, pork, veal and suckling pig. Poultry and game were also popular: monks consumed swan, cygnet, chicken, duck and goose.

Another way in which the Rule was adapted was with regard to communication. It was stipulated that monks’ meals should be eaten in silence. However, no-one mentioned sign language. Or whistling. The monks adopted a practical solution to the extent that twelfth century chronicler Gerald of Wales complained of dining monks behaving like ‘jesters’ after one visit to Canterbury.

It has been calculated that some monks could have been consuming up to 7000 calories a day. Astonishing when you think that today, the recommended calorie intake for an adult male is 2500 calories. This level of consumption is certainly not what Benedict would have had in mind. His rule on gluttony did not just cover quantity but also quality. Monks should eat only at allotted times and consume whatever was presented. Food should be fuel for the body and nothing more.

What is also of note is that as much as one fifth of monks’ enormous calorie intake could have come from alcohol. Monks had access to beer (as did the rest of the population: it was safer to drink than water) but also wine, the bulk of which was imported from Gascony. One could argue that the monks practised restraint by only drinking wine on saints’ days—of which there were about seventy in the year.

Fish was also popular, especially as no-one was allowed to eat meat on a Friday. In the days before effective refrigeration, fish would come from the fresh waters of rivers, lakes and managed fish ponds. Coastal communities would eat fresh sea fish. For those further inland, this fish was eaten salted, smoked, dried or pickled.

Earlier in the medieval period, Wednesdays and Saturdays were also non-meat days, as well as the dietary restrictions imposed for Lent and Advent. That didn't stop the monks. With another bit of monastic Rule tweaking, certain types of geese and puffins were deemed to be fish because of their close association with water. A monastic feast day could consist of a couple of dozen dishes.

The monks were fans of toe-to-tail eating. Umbles, for instance, were sheep’s entrails cooked in ale with breadcrumbs and spices. Deer entrails might also be on offer, as would tongue and mutton in sauce. Dowcet sounds far more appealing, certainly for this writer: a sweet custard made of milk, cream, sugar, dried fruits and eggs. It is unlikely such dishes were a rare treat. Archaeological remains from a medieval hospital in London found evidence of monks with worse teeth than their patients. Others from priories and abbeys have found skeletal remains with obesity-related joint disease.

But these huge levels of consumption were taking place in a society where the vast majority of people were at the brink of starvation or were actually starving. Ordinary people began to deeply resent the excesses of the privileged religious. By the fourteenth century there were poems and ballads mocking the monastic life and the over-privileged monks. The stereotype of the overfed monk, portly in his robes, immune from poverty, became one focus for discontent with the established church—and a very visible one.
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Jones, Terry & Eriera, Alan: Medieval Lives, London, BBC Books (2004)
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Livingstone, E.A.,ed.:The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev.ed.), Oxford University Press (2006, Current Online Version: 2013)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. London: The Bodley Head. (2008)
Whittock, Martyn, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: London, Constable & Robinson (2009)

E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, about John’s failed campaign in Ireland was published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016.

Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. As well as blogging and editing for EHFA, she is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting
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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Who Stole Britain’s Sixth Century?

By David Ebsworth 

I paid my first visit to Sixth Century Britain almost fifty years ago. It was Rosemary Sutcliff’s fault, since it was through the pages of A Sword at Sunset that my juvenile “King Arthur’s Round Table” image of the so-called Dark Ages first began to dissolve – the idea dawning that a more “realistic” portrayal of the period may be possible. Soon afterwards, I became an avid reader of Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave and the subsequent novels in that series. Brilliant historical fiction!

But I was troubled. Something about the language. Silly things. Like Mary Stewart’s place names - Dinas Emrys, and Maridunum, as examples. Sutcliff’s use of Yr Widdfa and Eburacum. Lots of other novels based in the period that use names such as Gwynedd or Guenhumara. And, because I have a love of languages and etymology, I began to think the unthinkable. Why would authors writing in modern English use pseudo-Welsh or Latin words for places or people and, in doing so, lose the specific descriptive images that the contemporary “Ancient Welsh” Brythonic language(s) would have conjured up?

And I was troubled by many other things too. So I picked up histories like Laing’s Celtic Britain and The Celtic Realms by Dillon and Chadwick, to find out more. Astonishment. It seemed that those beautiful Celtic manuscript illuminations may not, after all, have been the original invention of some highly creative solitary monk on Iona, but borrowed from a much earlier indigenous literacy; that Romano-Britons probably did know one end of a stylus from the other, and had not simply committed to prodigious memory all of their records in some exaggerated “oral tradition”; that the early Dark Ages may be so-named due to Romano-British documentation being lost to us, rather than never having existed; and that “Arthur” may be no more than the imaginative product of some medieval Tolkien.

These things continued to intrigue me, on and off, over the intervening years but I did little about it until circumstance recently caused me to look again at the years we would now call 540-550 AD. Most of Britain had been occupied by the Roman Empire for a period of roughly 400 years. In the aftermath, how much of Roman administrative culture survived, and how much broke down through local warlords carving out their own domains? We don’t know. And how much did people continue to live as they had done under Roman rule? We don’t know that either but, contrary to some of the “old” history, we can now see, archaeologically, that towns like Canterbury, Cirencester, Chester, Gloucester, Winchester, Wroxeter – and presumably many more – continued to be developed, with new-build taking place, well into the Sixth Century and beyond.

Possible Appearance of Post-Roman Chester

Meanwhile, we can be reasonably certain that, from the Third Century onwards, there had been increasing numbers of continental migrants settling mainly in the south and east of the Britannia provinces. We speculate that some of these may simply have been auxiliaries in the Roman army. Or that they were mercenaries, foederati, employed to fight in the various conflicts that beset the period. Or that they were simply economic migrants – Angles, Saxons and Jutes. This is often portrayed as an “invasion”, but there’s little hard evidence for this. Battles are cited. Dates given. Yet all the sources are questionable, to say the least.

The documents normally taken as “primary sources” for this period are: the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae of Gildas, originally written, we think, in the early Sixth Century; Saint Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), written about two hundred years later; the Historia Brittonum, compiled by some anonymous editor we now know as “Nennius”, also allegedly from the Ninth Century, though the actual manuscripts are much later; the so-called Harleian genealogies, the British Library’s Manuscript 3859, itself dating from the Twelfth Century; the Annales Cambriae (The Annals of Wales) with the earliest copy dating from the Twelfth Century; and such Irish documents as the Annals of Tigernach. And then there are even later literary manuscripts – those that are now frequently described as The Four Ancient Books of Wales, priceless as historical artefacts but entirely unreliable as historical sources for the period.

Gildas and De Excidio

That sounds like plenty of resource, yet there are very few who would be brave enough to claim these as providing the same level of “evidence” as we might expect for almost any other period of history. Only the De Excidio is contemporary and, after that, we have maybe five or six documents, scattered over the next 600 years and subject to all manner of copying errors, fashion and culture changes, political and religious tampering, literary adaptation, or simple grapevine misinterpretation. For those writing about the early Anglo-Saxon era of the late Sixth Century onwards, all of the manuscripts detailed above may provide something upon which to bite. But for those writing about the hundred preceding years, and about the very uncertain fate of the Romano-British population, they hold little of real value. So, what “new” details of the period did I discover?

Like almost everything else relating to 6th Century Britain, the extent to which Western Europe was afflicted by famines through an “Extreme Weather Event” of circa 535 AD is disputed. I was satisfied, however, that such a natural catastrophe had actually taken place, bringing widespread starvation in its wake.

Endless Winter - the Extreme Weather Event, approx. 540 AD

Similarly, I was satisfied that it was within the boundaries of possibility that Britain was struck by an outbreak of bubonic plague during the period. Procopius and other contemporaries record the plague as devastating Constantinople in 542 AD and then spreading both east and west. Gildas refers to the pestilence in Britain in the same era, though without dating the attack. The documents now known as Annales Cambriae and the Annals of Tigernach record “a great mortality” – believed to be the same plague – hitting Ireland and Wales at this time.

The third uncertainty I faced was the extent to which Rome’s occupation of Britain had left a legacy that still endured more than a hundred years after the Legions had marched away. The archaeological evidence shows that sites like Wroxeter, Chester and Birdoswald were not only still occupied as towns in the mid-Sixth Century but were also subject to the new-build developments I mentioned earlier. But it was the road system that intrigued me. We all know that the Romans built a sophisticated network of highways and byways across Britain, as they did everywhere within the Empire. So I concluded that the roads in question were likely to have still been very much in use. We are blessed that history has left us the Antonine Itinerary, which describes the Empire’s roads in great detail, including their lengths and distances between way-stations, or mansios. The Iter Britanniarum covers Britain’s section of the network, with a different itinerary for each of fifteen major routes. So, Itinerary XII, for example, covers the journey from Carmarthen to Wroxeter.

In truth, we have no real idea what most locations were called at all in Sixth Century Britain. We can speculate, using those names the Romans adopted from what they thought the locals called them, or by looking back retrospectively from accounts and stories written down only hundreds of years later. But there can be no certainty about any of this without some major new archaeological discovery and research and I still pray that Time Team, or the inestimable Mary Beard, may one day devote time to helping us re-discover the period.

Similarly, we know almost nothing about individuals who lived in Britain during the 6th Century. The same accounts and stories written down hundreds of years later leave us a patchwork of “names” that, on closer inspection, turn out to be, far more likely, titles or praise names, simple shadows, which may never have been anything more, in the first place, than folk-tale characters. My favourite, of course, is Gwenhwyfar – the character we all know as Guenivere or Guenhumara. But even a cursory examination will show us that Gwenhwyfar may not originally have been a name at all, but a title, or description. It means White Enchantress, or similar, and explains why there are so many apparently confusing legends with multiple characters all called Gwenhwyfar. Similarly, there are characters like Peredur (Hard-Spear), Vortigern (High Lord), Vortepor (Lord Protector) and scores of others – perhaps not actual names at all, but maybe praise names or self-styled titles.

And, still on language, I remained intrigued by the lack of primary sources for the period from a “Celtic” viewpoint, and the old myth that indigenous Britons must have only kept their lore, traditions and genealogies orally. Yet there are literally hundreds of inscriptions, revealed by archaeology, dating from around 500 BC onwards, in their own Celtic languages, though using Etruscan, Greek or Latin alphabets. These include entire poems, such as that found in 1887 at Deux-Sèvres – a hymn to the goddess Epona. So, literate Celtic Britons, who then lived alongside the literacy of the Mediterranean world for 400 years, and it seemed entirely inconsistent to me that Romano-Britons should have written no texts on their own history, philosophy and beliefs. And is it pure coincidence that the only fragments of Celtic language texts from the 6th Century are Christian documents, such as the famous An Cathach, attributed to St Columba? Peter Berresford Ellis, in his excellent study, A Brief History of the Celts, provides an entire chapter on Celtic literacy, and cites the references which imply that Saint Patrick, “in his missionary zeal”, burned hundreds of non-Christian texts. If true, then how widespread was the practice of Christians burning “pagan” texts?

All of which brings me back to the only contemporary primary written source for those studying Fifth and early-Sixth Century Britain. This is the text by Gildas called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae. Gildas, a Welsh-Breton priest, apparently wrote one hundred and ten historical chapters and admonitions, upon which Bede drew heavily almost two hundred years later – although the oldest actual manuscript of the De Excidio dates from the Eleventh Century. For students of the Dark Ages it’s still invaluable although, over the last hundred years, a growing body of academics and researchers have questioned the authenticity of the work and, at times, whether Gildas was even the author’s real name.

My conclusion, of course, is that the period between 500 AD and 600 AD is effectively a “lost century” in British history. But at least we know with more certainty what happened next. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and other sources confirm the way in which Angles, Saxons and Jutes consolidated territory into the Kingdoms of Northumbria (most of what we now know as northern England), Mercia, Anglia, Wessex, Essex, Sussex and Kent, with the more specifically “Celtic” folk confined to the Southwest, Wales, Cumbria and the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall. According to the Chronicles, there were one or two more battles in the period, like that at Deorham around 577 AD.

But all of the foregoing contrived to give me a series of intriguing premises. What if, indeed, there was no “Arthur” – simply post-Roman warlord rivalries, filling the political vacuum and collectively inspiring the much later legends? What if the Black Hags appearing so often in Celtic mythology were actually the outward symptoms of plague? What if post-Roman Britons were also devastated by the effects of the Extreme Weather Event? What if the “invasions” by Angles, Saxons and Jutes were no more than economic migrations by which those folk, for the most part, were simply the Sixth Century’s answer to labour and skills shortage? What if most of what we’ve been taught about the period comes down to us simply from propaganda aimed essentially at further boosting the development of Christianity in Britain? What if (the corollary), for the same reason, the true record of Romano-British culture and philosophy had to be deliberately expunged?

And what if these things, together, conspired to “steal” Britain’s Sixth Century from us?
David Ebsworth is the pen name of writer, Dave McCall, a former negotiator and Regional Secretary for Britain's Transport & General Workers’ Union. He was born in Liverpool (UK) but has lived in Wrexham, North Wales, with his wife, Ann, since 1981. Following his retirement, Dave began to write historical fiction in 2009.

His latest and fifth novel, The Song-Sayer's Lament - published earlier this year - brings to life a tale of warlord rivalry, betrayal, plague, heartbreak and famine in a detailed re-imagining of post-Roman 6th Century Britain.

Twitter: @EbsworthDavid
Facebook Page: David Ebsworth- Author

Buying Links:

Monday, June 27, 2016

Giveaway: The Song-Sayer's Lament: A Novel of Sixth-Century Britain by David Ebsworth

David Ebsworth has a new release, The Song-Sayer's Lament: A Novel of Sixth-Century Britain.

To celebrate, he is having a Giveaway of a paperback copy here on EHFA.

The Giveaway ends at midnight Pacific Standard Time on Sunday July 3 2016. To see some more information about the book, please click HERE.

To enter the draw, comment below on this page and be sure to leave your contact details. Good luck!

The Sailor and the Shark: An 18th Century Tale of the Thames

by Mimi Matthews

Fish Stories by Charles Frederick Holder, 1909.

For centuries, there have been tales of giant aquatic creatures lurking in the depths of the River Thames.  Some of these tales were based on actual fact.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, it was not uncommon to find porpoises in the river.  And once, according to author George Henry Birch in his 1903 book London on Thames Bygone Days, fishermen on the Thames even encountered a small whale.  Perhaps the most famous of these tales—as well as the most extraordinary—is the true story of the shark caught in the Thames in 1787.

On January 1, 1787, some fishermen spied a shark in the river and, with much difficulty, captured  the creature and drew it into their boat.  The shark was alive, but, as Birch states, “apparently sickly.”  The cause of his illness was soon discovered.  Upon taking him ashore and cutting him open, the fishermen found within his body a silver watch, chain, and “cornelian” seal.  A 1787 edition of the Northampton Mercury reports that they also found:

“…some Pieces of Gold Lace, which were conjectured to have belonged to some young Gentleman, who was swallowed by that voracious Fish.”

On further examination, it was found that the watch was engraved with the maker’s name and number: Henry Watson, London, No. 1369.  Mr. Watson lived in Shoreditch and, when applied to for information regarding that particular watch, the Northampton Mercury reports that Mr. Watson revealed that he had:

“…sold the Watch two Years ago to a Mr. Ephraim Thompson, of Whitechapel, as a Present for his Son on going out on his first Voyage (as what is called a Guinea-Pig) on board the ship Polly, Capt. Vane, bound to Coast and Bay.”

Illustrated Police News,
February 2, 1889.
A guinea pig was sailor’s slang for an inept or inexperienced sailor—which proved an all too apt description of young Thompson.  Not far into his journey, about three leagues off of Falmouth, a rainsquall descended and, as the 1787 issue of the New Annual Register relates:

“…Master Thompson fell overboard, and was no more seen.”

After receiving the news of Thompson’s death, his friends and family in London expected to hear no more on the subject.  One might imagine that the gruesome discovery, two years later, of Thompson’s watch and clothing inside the belly of a shark would have been an unwelcome update on their lost loved one.  Instead, it appears to have provided some measure of closure for Thompson’s father, who promptly purchased the dead shark to display as a memorial to his son.  As the Northampton Mercury states:

“Mr. Ephraim Thompson has purchased the Shark, which he calls his Son’s Executor—and the Watch, &c. which he considers as his last Legacy.”

Thompson’s father also had the small satisfaction of knowing that it was likely his son’s watch and clothing that had made the shark so sickly.  According to the New Annual Register:

“…the body and other parts, had either been digested, or otherwise voided; but the watch and gold lace not being able to pass through it, the fish had thereby become sickly, and would in all probability very soon have died.”   

The 1787 incident of the killer shark in the Thames was notable for many reasons.  Not only did the shark return the belongings of its victim to London—an extraordinary event in and of itself—but it was also the largest shark on record to have ever been discovered in the Thames.  Birch reports it as being:

“…from the tip of the snout to the extremity of the tail 9 feet 3 inches; from the shoulder to the extremity of the body, 6 feet 1 inch; round the body in the thickest part, 6 feet 9 inches; the width of the jaws when extended, 17 inches; it had five rows of teeth, and from that circumstance was supposed to have been five years old.”

Porbeagle Shark Illustration,
A History of the Fishes of the British Islands, 1862-1865.

To this day, the 1787 shark remains the largest ever caught in the Thames, but it has not been the only shark.  In 1891, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported the story of a six-foot shark found in the Thames, writing that:

“The animal followed a Dutch ship almost the whole way from Rotterdam.”

The “master” of the Dutch vessel had his baby on board and was convinced that this was the reason for the shark’s pursuit.  Upon arriving in London, he offered a £1 reward to anyone who could capture the shark.  It took several days and many attempts, but in the end—as an 1891 edition of Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reports—an “ex-champion weight-lifter” by the name of Charles M’Kenna managed to capture the shark with a “huge cod hook baited with beef.”

In 1898, another shark was caught in the Thames, this time in a fisherman’s net.  The Morning Post reports the shark’s measurements at just under five feet in length.  Not as large as the Great White in Jaws, certainly, but large enough to put a scare into Victorians of the era.

What kind of sharks were these?  It is never mentioned in any of the accounts, however, the 1903 Report on the Sea Fisheries and Fishing Industries on the Thames Estuary, as prepared by Dr. James Murie, describes several larger varieties of shark which might have made their way into the Thames, including the Hammerhead Shark, the Long-Tailed Thresher Shark, and the Porbeagle Shark.

Denizens of the Deep, 1904.

It is hard to imagine just what occurred after Ephraim Thompson’s son fell overboard on his first voyage out to sea.  Was the shark found two years later in the Thames the one who killed him?  Or was he merely a luckless scavenger who had happened upon Thompson’s remains?  In this instance, history provides no answers, but one does not need to know every gruesome detail to appreciate that the story of the 1787 shark in the Thames is one of the most extraordinary in English animal history.  

©2016 Mimi Matthews

Works Cited

Birch, George Henry.  London on Thames in Bygone Days.  London: Seeley & Co., 1903.

Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper.  November 1, 1891.

Murie, James.  Report on the Sea Fisheries and Fishing Industries on the Thames Estuary, Part 1.  London: Waterlow Bros., 1903.

New Annual Register.  London: G. G. J and J. Robinson, 1787.

Northampton Mercury.  December 15, 1787.

“Shark Captured in the Thames.”  Dundee Evening Telegraph.  November 2, 1891.

“Shark in the Thames.”  Morning Post.  September 12, 1898.

“Thames Full of Sharks.”  Nottingham Evening Post.  August 21, 1934.

“Watch Found in a Shark.”  The Wonders of the Universe.  Exeter: J. & B. Williams, 1836.


Author Biography

Mimi Matthews writes traditional historical romances set in 19th century England.  She is a member of Romance Writers of America (PRO), The Beau Monde, and Savvy Authors, and is currently represented by Serendipity Literary Agency in New York.  Her articles on 19th century romance, literature, and history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web, and are also syndicated once weekly at Bust Magazine.  In her other life, she is an attorney with both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature.  She resides in Northern California with her family – which includes an Andalusian dressage horse, a Sheltie, and two Siamese cats.


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Editors Weekly Round Up: June 26, 2016

by the EHFA Editors

Enjoy this week's wrap up of posts on the blog:

by Mark Patton

by MJ Neary

by Linda Root

by Anna Belfrage
(an Editor's Choice archives post)

The English Historical Fiction Authors blog has also been running a Giveaway this week. Marina J. Neary is giving away a signed paperback of The Gate of Dawn.  You can find the details below. Entries are open until Midnight (Pacific Time), Sunday June 26 2016.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Herbalist, astrologer, republican and altruist - meet the talented Mr Culpeper

by Anna Belfrage

Some people are born with a major interest in flowers and such. Take my eldest son, who at the tender age of fourteen months methodically chomped his way through every single one of my hundred odd tulips, leaving half chewed petals in his wake. Or take Nicholas Culpeper, whose interest in flora was somewhat more scientific. I don’t think he ever ate a tulip – but that may have been more out of parsimony than disinclination, as tulips were rare plants indeed during Nicholas’ lifetime.

My son no longer remembers what tulips tasted like, and seeing as these plants – or at least their bulbs – are mildly poisonous, he was never given an opportunity to repeat his gastronomical excursions. Culpeper tells us nothing of the tulip in his writings. I guess we can conclude that Culpeper wasn’t all that interested in flowers that were “merely” beautiful.

There are very few authors around who can boast at having their book in constant publication for more than 350 years. Obviously, this is to some extent due to the fact that very few authors live long enough to experience such a long print run, but leaving witticisms aside, Nicholas Culpeper is one of the few authors around whose book has been in constant demand since it was first published, back in 1652.

So what was so great about his book? Did he reveal the secrets of alchemy? Was he perhaps an early George R.R. Martin, riveting people to their seats by a complex and convoluted tale involving dragons, feuding kings and resilient damsels? Nope – although Nicholas’ own life contained enough adventure to fill a book or two, what with the times he lived in. But what Nicholas experienced in life resulted in an entirely different kind of book; Nicholas published an herbal, The English Physitian, a DIY manual to keeping hale and hearty in a time where what medicines were to be found came from plants.

If we start at the beginning, Nicholas was born in 1616, the posthumous son of Reverend Nicholas Culpeper, lord of Ockley manor in Surrey. The manor slipped through baby Nicholas’ fingers, and instead he was raised by his maternal grandfather, yet another reverend. By the time he was ten, little Nicholas had a good grounding in Greek and Latin, was familiar with both astrology and medical tracts and was well on his way to becoming a master herbalist. One must assume this passion for plants came from his grandfather, and I have this image of two figures, one stout and leaning on a cane, the other agile and all legs and arms, standing side by side as they inspect a stand of digitalis.

At the age of sixteen, Nicholas was sent to Cambridge to study divinities. He wasn’t all that interested – he wanted to study medicine – and as a consequence he never graduated. Besides, Nicholas had other plans. Since childhood, he had held a special fondness for Judith Rivers, a well-to-do heiress, and the two young lovers were committed to a life together. Judith’s parents disapproved. Nicholas was not a catch, and their precious Judith could do better. I imagine Judith wept. She trailed her mother like a whipped puppy and begged her parents to reconsider – she loved Nicholas, would love no other. Mr and Mrs Rivers remained unmoved. Judith  was meant for other, richer, men.

Well, we all know what teenage fools do for love, right? Faced with her parents’ continued opposition, Judith and Nicholas devised a plan. They were to elope to Holland (Gretna Green had not come into the vogue yet) and stay there until the furore died down. As an aside, parental consent was not required for marriage in the 17th century, but to wed without Mama’s and Papa’s approval was to risk ending up being disinherited. I suppose Judith was hoping that old adage “distance makes the heart grow fonder” would apply to her parents as well.

Whatever the case, Judith and Nicholas were not destined for a happily ever after. On her way to her rendezvous with Nicholas, Judith’s carriage was struck by lightning, and she died. With one bolt of thunder, Nicholas’ hopes of a rosy future were obliterated – even more so when his grandfather decided to disinherit him, so shamed was he by Nicholas’ actions.

Nicholas was now in dire straits. There was no money to pay for his education, there was no bride, no welcoming home. After rousing himself from grief-induced depression, Nicholas apprenticed himself to an apothecary in London. He taught his employer Latin, his employer taught Nicholas everything he knew about plants.

In 1635, Nicholas took over his former master’s apothecary shop on Threadneedle Street. Due to his extensive reading and an inquisitive mind, Culpeper’s education was as extensive as that of a physician - but it was an informal education, and as such of very little value professionally. To his medical interests, Culpeper added astrology, blending these two disciplines into a holistic approach to healing. The Royal College of Physicians was not pleased with this interloper. Nicholas Culpeper retaliated by describing the physicians as “bloodsuckers, true vampires” – not the basis for a long-lasting loving relationship.

In 1640, several years after the sad affair with Judith, Nicholas married Alice Field. His new wife had recently inherited a considerable fortune after her merchant father, and using her money the couple established themselves in Spitalfields, far enough from London proper to allow Nicholas to continue with his healing endeavours despite not being an accredited member of the Royal College of Physicians. In Spitalfields, Nicholas opened the doors of his practise to everyone who needed his help. (How fortunate his wife was rich.)

A cure against rabid dogs...
Most of Nicholas cures were based on herbs. Some were true advancements in medical science, as when he documents the use of foxgloves to treat heart conditions (definitely works. The dosage, however, is somewhat tricky, and if too high will kill your patient). Some sound decidedly strange, such as boiling your bedstraw in oil to make an aphrodisiac. Otherwise, he shares that willow can be used to stem the bleeding of wounds, roses can alleviate the discomfort of menses , raspberries and strawberries are excellent ways of ridding your teeth of “tartarous concretions” (plaque?). The seeds of nettles can be used against the bites of rabid dogs (I think not), meadow-sweet is recommended against fevers (works, as meadow-sweet contains high doses of salicylic acid) and flea-bane helps with bites from venomous beasts. Hmm.  My general conclusion after browsing through Nicholas’ suggested cures is to take them with a pinch of salt – and to make sure I have a herbal with me to ensure I’m picking the right plant!

Our innovative healer did more than just list plants. He combined his herbal lore with his other passion, astrology, and borrowed heavily from Galen’s humoral philosophy, which is why in his herbal the plants are sorted by planets. Some belong to Venus, others to Mars and yet others to Saturn or Jupiter. He adds to all this his own comments – like when he dismisses black currants as having a “stinking and somewhat loathing savour”, thereby dismissing a plant we know to contain very high levels of vitamin C as well as a number of anti-inflammatory agents.

After some years of contented calm in Spitalfields, things were to change yet again for our intrepid healer. By now, the ravages of the Civil War were upon the people of England. Culpeper was a radical republican and wanted to do his thing for the cause. Besides, there was the matter of a slanderous accusation for witchcraft, plus an increasingly more infected relationship with both the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. These august bodies disliked Culpeper’s translations of medical texts from Latin to English, making hitherto restricted knowledge available to the broader masses. It sort of undermined their business concept...

Nicholas kissed his wife goodbye, may have stooped over a cradle to coo at one of the many children his wife was to give him – puny little things that all but one died young – and rode off to fight for Parliament. The recruiting officer was less than flattering regarding Nicholas’ physique, but more than impressed when he heard Culpeper’s credentials, and instead of fighting, Nicholas was put to work as a field surgeon.  He attended the wounded at the battle of Edgehill, joined in the initial fighting at the battle of Newbury but was quickly called upon to use his medical skills instead.  Culpeper was operating on an injured soldier when a stray musket ball wounded him severely in the chest, effectively ending his military ambitions.

Back in London, Nicholas returned to treating the poor. His own health was deteriorating rapidly through a combination of too much work, his unhealed injury and tuberculosis. It didn’t help that his children kept on dying, causing both Nicholas and his wife more than their share of grief. On top of this, Nicholas took up a one man crusade against the “closed shop” policies of the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. This “closed shop” policy was effectively a monopoly, based on the fact that so many of the guidelines to making medicines and treating diseases were only in Latin and only available to a few.

Nicholas made it his purpose in life to crush this monopoly. He translated one text after the other, he wrote treatises on diseases, on midwifery, on the properties of plants. He translated Galen into English, he devoted time to his destitute patients, and in all this he also managed to produce his masterpiece, The English Physitian – a giant handbook on what herbs to use for what diseases.

By now, Nicholas knew he was dying. He was burning his candle both ends as life gasped and fluttered within him, driven by a need to write down as much as possible to help his fellowman. And he was clearly very productive, because when he finally did die, in January of 1654, his wife wrote that her husband had left her “79 books of his own making or translating in my hands.”

Nicholas Culpeper was an idealist. He was a man who combined compassion and passion into a constant endeavour to help the sick and ailing. He considered it a human right to have access to medical care – a precursor of the future welfare state – and like Don Quijote he was not afraid to take on an army of windmills while fighting for what he thought was right. In difference to Don Quijote, Culpeper fought using pen and ink rather than lance. And the fact that his book is still there, is still being read, is a testament to his success.

The English Physitian quickly became very popular. Housewives all over wanted a copy, and when people set off for the wild unknown of the New World, many of them carried with them a precious copy of Culpeper’s book, hoping to find cures for whatever ills might afflict them in their new homeland within the covers. I think Nicholas would have been pleased. I also think he would have liked my tulips – no matter that they have very few medicinal uses.

Editor's Choice: This article was originally published on June 24, 2014. 

Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Hugh Despenser plays a central role.The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, will be published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.